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A full-size replica of the tabernacle in the Timna National Park in Israel
Picture from chameleonsEye/shutterstock

Tabernacle and Church

The word tabernacle occurs several times in the Bible. Two different Hebrew words have been translated as tabernacle in the Old Testament (OT). One is 'ophel' and the other is 'mishkan'. It is interesting to find that the meaning of the two words is different, and certainly worth noting. The word 'ohel' is better translated as 'tent', whereas 'mishkan', translated in the NIV as tabernacle, means 'dwelling-place', among other closely related meanings.

The first use of 'mishkan' in the OT is found in the book of Exodus: "Then let them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you."

  • Exodus 25.8,9

In these verses some very important principles are firmly established which must be accepted by any who would commit themselves to a relationship with God. We will come back to these verses later. In the early chapters of Genesis we learn of the failure of Adam and Eve to be obedient to a specific command. Before their fall the couple had had a wonderful relationship with God and were able to communicate with Him. Sadly, after their disobedience it all changed. The 'fall' and subsequent banishment from the garden of Eden is graphically described in Genesis chapter 3. However, God's plan was declared right back in Eden to bring about a reconciliation.

We move forward to the time of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. Initially the Israelites, having miraculously escaped their Egyptian oppressors, should have entered 'the promised land'. But because of unfaithfulness, they were prevented from doing so for 40 years and wandered in the wilderness of Sinai. As God's people they had been established as a nation at Mount Sinai. They were given detailed instructions through Moses as to how their relationship with God should develop.

The tabernacle in the wilderness

The command to build a tabernacle was a very important part of these instructions. The details of the structure and its contents are clearly set out in Exodus chapters 25 to 40. The importance of accepting God's instructions and carrying them out completely, cannot be overstated. Following the failure of Adam and Eve, all their descendants were in need of salvation − it was that serious! Any half-hearted approach to God would be of no benefit. God was prepared to meet his people, and in effect dwell with them, on condition that they kept close to him in obedience to his commands.

We go back to that first quotation from Exodus. It is of utmost importance to take each point one at a time. "Then let them make a sanctuary for me". This was a sanctuary for God, and for what purpose? The answer is in the words that follow: "and I will dwell among them". What a privileged people they were, for when the tabernacle was completed, we read that ". . . the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle."

  • Exodus 40.34

The last part of this instruction was: "Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you". Here we are faced with a challenge, and it is as relevant today as it was then. Note the phrase, "exactly like the pattern".

A cut-away view showing the Holy and Most Holy Place. Every detail of the tent's construction is specified in the book of Exodus
Picture from 2008 Crossway Bibles

This underlines God's pre-eminence over His creation; it is He alone who can give life beyond our present existence. It is only through obedience to God's instructions that we can obtain eternal life. We cannot make up our own rules. From the time when God graciously gave the opportunity to men and women to obey Him, the vast majority have preferred to 'do their own thing'. We can see the results everywhere. However we learn from the Bible that God is long-suffering and His promise to renew this world remains. It is His intention to again dwell with mankind.

The New Testament church

If we refer to a Bible Concordance, we find that the word 'church' found in the New Testament (NT) has been translated from the Greek word 'ekklesia' or 'ecclesia'. It needs to be understood that the word 'church' or 'ecclesia' in the Biblical context is never a building or a meeting place. A definition given by Robert Young in his Analytical Concordance is 'that which is called out'. It is interesting to connect the record in Exodus and the use of this word 'ecclesia' in the NT. Israel were 'called out' of Egypt by God and came together as an assembly in the wilderness.

They were constituted as a nation with God as their king at Sinai (Exodus 19.4-6). Israel were summoned by God and specific instructions were given to them with regards to the manner in which they should leave Egypt. It is worth noting that they didn't leave Egypt in a way that would suit their own timing, requirements and needs. United they left, directed to take a certain route, and the timing of their departure was clearly given. They were miraculously saved by the parting of the Red Sea. This again underlines the lesson that it is God who gives life. Therefore we should give careful heed to His requirements and conditions if we are to obtain the everlasting life promised in His kingdom when Jesus returns. The word 'ecclesia' has a Hebrew background. The Hebrew word is 'qahal'. This denotes an assembly or congregation. There is an important element to the meaning in the original Hebrew and that is 'to summon'. It refers to those who are called out and summoned by God. Unity and fellowship are the hallmarks of those who make up the assembly of God, the 'ecclesia.'

William Barclay in his book, 'New Testament Words' wrote: "In essence, therefore, the Church, the 'ecclesia', is a body of people, not so much assembling because they have chosen to come together but assembling because God has called them to himself; not so much assembling to share their own thoughts and opinions, but assembling to listen to the voice of God" .

When Israel entered the Promised Land, the tabernacle was replaced, first by Solomon's temple and later by Herod's temple, seen here in a model. The earliest Christians met from house to house.
Picture from flick 47/istock

Linking the three words that we have briefly considered, they are all to do with God's methods of communicating with His people. In all cases there must be a willingness on the part of the people to listen carefully, and accept unconditionally, the requirements set out by God. If this is done in all humility, at the same time accepting that all people are in need of forgiveness because of human frailty, then in effect God dwells with them. Jesus said: "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him" (John 14.23 NIV). The Zondervan Bible Concordance gives the meaning of the original word translated 'home' as ‘dwelling-place’.

The Israelites in their time were given the provision of meeting with God. In the Christian era we are given the provision of assembling around God's Word, the Bible. This is all with the purpose that our hopes may rest on the promise of God to send Jesus back. He will raise the dead and gather together all those throughout history who have been 'called out'. The letter to the Hebrews reminds us that the promise of life for ever in the kingdom of God will not be realised before the return of Jesus. Concerning those who have served God faithfully in the past we read: ". . . all these, having obtained a good report through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us."

  • Hebrews 11.39,40

Those approved at Christ's judgement seat are forgiven and made righteous because of the atoning work of Jesus our Saviour (Matthew 25.31-34; 2 Corinthians 5.10). In the last book of the Bible the Apostle John heard these words about the culmination of God's plan:

"And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling-place ('tabernacle') of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God."

  • Revelation 21.3 NIV

You and I have a personal invitation to be there.

Alan Rich
Norfolk, UK
Source Light on a New World reprint from Volume 30.4

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